I stretch and pull my book bag from under my head. My head-rush clears, and the woods look down at me golden and warm and teasing, like they’ve moved on. It’s probably almost dinner time.
There are voices behind me. Let them do whatever they’re doing, I’m going home. Oh, but they’re right behind me, maybe a half-dozen trees away. There’s no way to leave without being noticed.
So I stand up, slip my book bag on and walk around. Great.
It’s more boys. They’re standing in a semi-circle, hooting. Only something’s not right.
I watch for what feels like an eternity. The one on the right is grunting and the other two are staring in front of them, sometimes looking down. Then they shift their feet and I can see a fourth boy, on the ground, in front of them. The one on the right spasms a little, and the one on the ground groans, and that’s when I notice all their pants are in a pile under a maple tree.
It’s kind of gross and kind of fascinating at once. I wish Alice was here. I feel like every moment I stay I’m learning something important, and if I leave too soon I won’t get it. The boy on the right lets out a little shout, the one in the middle punches him on the shoulder and says, My turn, and the one on the ground stands up, and looks me right in the eye.
It’s the boy who was staring at my chest earlier, at the Candy Connection. They all turn around. Three of them I don’t know, but the one on the left is my big brother’s friend, Mike.
They stare at me for almost a minute. The one in back shifts his weight. Finally he says, Wha-what the fuck are you doing here?
The others stay quiet. I get that.
The one the right says, Aren’t you in my homeroom?
I nod. The one who was on the ground pushes out in front.
Your name’s Susan, he says. Right?
I stare at them.
Hi, Susan, my name’s Brock. He nearly crushes my hand. Brock Livingston. There’s a real easy way out of this for you. We all just agree that you weren’t here—that none of us—were ever here. That way you won’t have to deal with anything… hard, at school tomorrow. Or, you know, next week.
Are you threatening me?
What? No. Just saying it would be g—
Let me get this clear: I just caught you in the woods, putting your peckers in each other’s mouths, and now that’s my problem?
Well, look, Susan, he says. It doesn’t have to be a problem for any of us. Not mine, not Steve’s, not Mike—
No, I want to be sure I get this. I look Mike in the eye. There’s no blood in his cheeks. Because I think you just made yourself a problem.
I don’t like threats.
I see…. Brock looks over my shoulder, then back down at me. Do you know who my father is?
Oh, what, are you going to tell him? That you were horsing around in the woods when this mean seventh-grade girl showed up and told you to go home?
Maybe I’ll tell the whole school that some sicko chick was torturing animals, and when we tried to stop her—
Really? You’re going to ditch a class, and drive to the Junior High to tell the seventh grader about something that happened in the woods yesterday. That’s sincerely the best you can come up with?
Well, he says coolly, who do you think they’ll believe?
Here’s a better question. Which of us has more to lose?
The boys all look at Brock uncomfortably. Most of a minute passes.
Look, I say. I don’t care what you’re doing out here—really, I don’t. And until you suggested it, I had no reason to tell anyone. I look each of them in the eye for what feels like an incredibly long time, starting with Mike. So here’s what I propose:
I’ll keep your secret. You don’t have to pay me, or give me rides. You just be nice to me, in public. Get it? Nice.
You can start practicing right now: my name’s not Susan.